By Sam Frye Kienzle
This is a two nails in the board, one nail in the thumb type of construction process for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
After being stunted by Ohio State and Michigan State, Iowa (11-9, 3-4) beat #13 Michigan on Saturday, January 14th, 75-59. The team looked much more competent against the Wolverines, hustling for loose balls, forcing separation, and unselfishly dishing on assists. Matt Gatens gave Iowa a 3-point threat and hit his last five shots, finishing with 19 points. Guys like Zach McCabe and Aaron White played their roles masterfully. At least these guys know how to use the back of the hammer. A successful team construction involves some slip ups and reconciliation. Sometimes it involves an earful from your coach.
After four consecutive losing seasons, we’ll count two bad losses (combined 63 point losses) as a step back and a turnaround victory against a ranked opponent as two steps forward, because Michigan has not been a common win for Iowa over the past four years. Before Saturday, Matt Gatens only had one victory against Michigan. Five years ago, Iowa and Michigan were both mediocre by season’s end in 2007, with Steve Alford absconding through the back door to New Mexico, and Michigan firing Tommy Amaker. Michigan hired current coach John Beilein, who has upgraded the Michigan basketball brand.
Although they have not supplanted Big Ten mainstays like Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, or Wisconsin, Michigan has beaten everyone somewhat regularly. The team is making trips back to the NCAA tournament, and Beilein is playing blue chip recruits like Tim Hardaway Jr., among others. And until Saturday, his teams had beaten Iowa a lot. The last time Gatens beat Michigan was the 2008-09 season, with Iowa winning 70-60 in OT. Gatens was a freshman. Those were the Todd Lickliter years; many a blowout suffered while slow Hawkeyes slogged through games. Saturday, meanwhile, Gatens the Iowa Citian went out a winner against Michigan, who will not meet the Hawkeyes again this regular season.
The Hawkeyes will no longer have to deal with Purdue. Two of the Hawks’ four conference losses are against Purdue, and the believers of fire-faced Fran have to feel pretty good that the team is 3-4 through the hardest portion of their Big Ten schedule with wins at Wisconsin, Minnesota, and at home against ranked Michigan. Iowa did have a first half lead against Purdue on January 17th at Mackey Arena, but were out-schemed and slumped offensively during the second half in a 75-68 loss. The Hawks don’t yet know how to defend Purdue’s speedy finesse on offense, either. But above all else, Iowa’s improvements are noticeable. Take Zach McCabe scoring career-high 20 points at Purdue.
And after a tough opening slate of games, Iowa can now prepare for teams like Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, January 26th and a retro jersey night against Penn State February 4th that will pay respect to the 1986-1987 Elite 8 team. The Cornhuskers have a win against Indiana at home this year, but are liable for a squashing if Carver is active enough. Iowa plays teams like Nebraska and Northwestern throughout the rest of the schedule, but does still have to play at Illinois and at ranked Indiana. The NIT is likely with a winning record for the Hawks, as the Big Ten’s depth and talent stand out among the best conferences.